Of streetcars and desires

originally on totaltantrum

This article concerns the recent launch of light-rail in Canberra and its relation to ongoing processes of gentrification and development in the city and inner-north.  Any discussion of urban space, or contestations of the nature and function of the city, are defunct without an acknowledgement of the violent processes of colonisation and dispossession of indigenous people which have been integral to the formation of modern cities.  This blog is written on Ngunnawal land.

Light-rail has launched in the Australian Capital Territory.  Trivial news on the Grand Scale of Things perhaps, but a big deal for Canberra.  Or so we are told.  Particularly if we listen to the likes of chief minister Andrew Barr, who has declared that the event marks the date when Canberra “grew up as a city.”  Barr’s remarks that the light-rail project is a century in the making may be somewhat disingenuous, but he has reason to celebrate nonetheless.  The laying down of tracks between the satellite centre of Gungahlin and the CBD has been described as the largest infrastructural project in the city’s history, and has come in at a cost of around one billion dollars.  On the date of its launch, the ACT government has spent up to $100,000 on opening festivities, including live music, food stalls, and free rides on the city’s favourite new novelty trolley.  Months, or even weeks from now, sleepy commuters scrambling for a seat on their way to work will be unlikely to remember this initial enthusiasm.

Behind the flurry of media excitement sits a relatively banal reality; they have built just one more means for transporting us between the buildings where we work, the buildings where we shop, and the buildings where we sleep.

What Barr and his consortium are celebrating has less to do with a light-rail scheme than it does with their own demonstrated power to redesign and reconfigure the operations of a vast tract of public space.  The light-rail project has been a driving force behind the ACT government’s plan to rebrand Canberra as a “confident, bold and ready city.”  In the process, they have swept away historic public housing estates and released swathes of land along the Northbourne Avenue corridor for the development of so-called “luxury apartments” and townhouse complexes.  Higher rent for smaller quarters.  Intensified atomisation and social alienation for the city’s inhabitants, and increased profits for its owners.

Barr would have us believe that the advent of light-rail is a necessary step toward the development of a “real public transport system” befitting a population of half-a-million.  Likewise, transport minister Meegan Fitzharris has claimed that the project responds to the challenges of population growth and climate change.  These are ambitious claims, particularly considering the limited extent of the light-rail route itself.  Servicing a thin corridor between the rapidly growing town centre of Gungahlin and the city proper, the vast majority of Canberrans living in the outer-northern suburbs and the city’s south will nonetheless continue to rely on their cars, or on the under-developed bus network to ship them to-and-fro between spaces of production and spaces of consumption.

Behind the triumphalism of Barr and Fitzharris is the reality of the function of the light-rail corridor: the unlocking of development potential.  Ex-chief minister Katy Gallagher admits as much, noting that when the government first seriously considered the project back in 2011, a key interest was in the prospect for development.  While light-rail would cost significantly more than improving the bus network, Gallagher admits that the potential for land development along the Northbourne Avenue corridor more than made up for the difference.

The business class is not hiding its satisfaction with the attempt.  Paul Powdler, CEO of Colliers International ACT, has candidly remarked that “what we’ve seen happen as a result of this light rail is new development all along Northbourne Avenue. There’s cranes, there’s new apartments being built. It’s delivering what the government wanted which is economic activity along this corridor”.  The last four years have seen a hyperactive process of neo-gentrification in the construction of new commercial precincts in Braddon, the planned further development of Dickson and the removal of public housing to clear the way for luxury apartment and townhouse complexes as noted above.

We are no more ‘anti-tram’ than we are ‘anti-car’ or ‘anti-road’.  This is not a question of denouncing a tram, or a light-rail vehicle or whatever else they would like us to call it.  Rather, we situate the light-rail project as a moment within a broader movement of the capitalist restructuring of daily life in this quarter of the city.  Life in capitalist cities consists of dead repetition – trams embark every six minutes.  Who gets to decide when a city has grown up?  Whose interests does this growth serve?  Those who determine how we experience the city, whose interests it serves, who is included and excluded from its avenues and its bespoke apartment precincts, are the same who line their pockets with our rent and our taxes.

The development along the Northbourne Avenue corridor has been an exercise in refining the social practice of the construction of lived urban space, in the interest of the accumulation of capital and at the expense of the ‘undesirables’.  Homeless people living in tent communities in the city have been banned from working on the key intersections, and will now need to venture further for the pittance they raise through the degrading labour of cleaning the windscreens of bored and irate commuters.  Also banned are activities such as hitch-hiking.  The state and capital dictate the limits to our experience of the city and its potential.

Let’s not swallow the platitudes of mogul developers and real-estate capitalists when it comes to the renovation of our neighbourhoods – they only want one thing from us.

The last few years have changed the face of this city.  We can’t go back now.  We also don’t want to romanticise what existed before.  Rather, we seek to always extend our critique of the rationalism of capital and the state, and their dictatorship over the possibilities we have to live our lives and realise our desires within the urban field.  This is a tension that exists in all cities across the world.

The capitalist city will always be a mausoleum.  Only a revolutionary contestation will bring life back into the streets, and lead the way toward more emancipated forms of collective life.